If you’re looking for affordable luxury, India is the ultimate shopping destination

Accessible chic.
Accessible chic.
Image: Cord Studio/Facebook
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Fashion and accessories brands from around the world are waking up to the spending power of the aspirational Indian consumer.

Over the past few years, brands such as Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, and Kate Spade have all set up shop in big cities, providing discerning consumers with the affordable luxury styles they could previously only pick up in the West. As a result, this segment of India’s retail industry is booming, estimated to be worth around $200 million, and growing at a rate of 40% every year, according to a June 2016 report by market research firm Euromonitor International. And while affordable luxury consitutes a small part of India’s overall luxury goods market, which was worth around $3.4 billion in 2016, experts say its growth is outpacing the rest of the sector. Foreign firms aren’t the only ones out to capitalise on the opportunity, though.

Within the segment, a number of homegrown brands are now carving out a niche for themselves with their own East-meets-West sensibility. Combining good design and minimalist style with Indian materials and craftsmanship, designers are giving fashion-forward shoppers a chance to buy local, selling well-made clothing and accessories at a price that is well within their reach.

Going gl-ocal

For Pranav Guglani and Neha Singh, founders of New Delhi-based leather goods brand Cord, catering to the aspirational Indian consumer was a priority right from the start. Since 2015, the graduates of Delhi’s Pearl Academy have been making minimalist bags and accessories, pairing vintage styles with contemporary shapes to give customers options that aren’t easy to find outside of high-priced luxury stores.

“I felt there’s a need-gap in the affordable luxury market, and (it) needs good-quality products which are priced under Rs10,000,” Guglani told Quartz. “We started out with prices which were very modest for a leather bag. If you’re paying about Rs5,000 to Rs7,000, I would say that’s a very good price,” he added.

And customers seemed to agree. Cord’s very first design, the semi-circular “hemicycle bag” which comes in tan leather and various prints, remains its best-selling product, priced at Rs7,500. Guglani says there was a time the company sold four to five units of the style every day.

At its store in New Delhi, which opened in May, the company records around Rs30,000-Rs35,000 in sales daily, which Guglani believes is testament to the fact that Cord’s nostalgic yet progressive designs are resonating with well-travelled Indian shoppers, who may have seen similar styles in cities such as New York or Berlin.

“We’re proud to be Indian but our designs are very global,” he explained.

And it turns out that this is what the modern Indian customer is looking for, whether they live in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, or Chennai.

New Delhi-based Nappa Dori, for instance, has seen Indian shoppers increasingly snapping up its richly-hued leather bags and pastel-coloured trunks which were once only embraced by expats and tourists. Now, founder Gautam Sinha says, 40% of the brand’s customers are local, a big improvement from the early days.

With many of its products priced between Rs8,000 and Rs13,000, Nappa Dori’s leather goods are slightly more expensive than Cord’s but they still come in much cheaper than the products sold by brands such as Louis Vuitton or Hermès, making them an aspirational choice for consumers who appreciate good design, and are willing to pay for it.

“Over the last 10 years, the younger generation is a lot more proud to be Indian…there’s a lot more self-confidence, belief (in) the way the economy is doing, (and) a lot more disposable income. All those factors taken into account work positively for a brand,” Sinha told Quartz.

And that applies to fashion, too. Homegrown brands such as Nicobar, The Olio Stories, and Jodi are finding fans by redefining Indian style, taking inspiration from around the world and pairing it with local cotton and khadi fabrics to create unconventional patterns and designs. With prices that range from around Rs1,500 to Rs9,000, these new-age brands are positioned in the sweet-spot for capitalising on the rising tide of young, affluent, and style-conscious consumers who are looking to stand out from the crowd.

“We felt now is the right time to launch a brand to showcase and celebrate the newer side of India,” Nirmal Kaur, head of brand and marketing at Nicobar, told Quartz earlier this year, adding that there’s a growing section of Indian consumers who are more curious and experimental than ever before.

“Moving away from quick and compulsive purchases towards more thoughtful acquisitions, they make their own rules, bypassing big-boxed stores in favour of small, independent retailers,” Kaur added. “(They’re) the kind of people who care about where their coffee and their clothes came from.”

But despite this consumer evolution, homegrown players in the affordable luxury space are still small fish compared to foreign brands.

Everybody loves Michael Kors

For the most part, it’s international brands such as Michael Kors, Diesel, and Charles & Keith that dominate the affordable luxury segment in India, according to Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president, retail & consumer products, at consulting firm Technopak. For brand-conscious Indian shoppers, these established global giants provide a way to invest in status symbols that are far more affordable than the average luxury brand.

Since its entry in 2013, Michael Kors has opened four stores in the country and plans to launch even more. The brand is doing brisk business in India with its colourful bags and accessories, with shoppers spending a sizable sum of around Rs20,000-Rs30,000 at a time. Meanwhile, accessories brand Kate Spade launched its first two stores in India earlier this year, located in New Delhi.

But the biggest obstacle in the overall sector remains the lack of quality retail space.

“One of the reasons why the market is yet to achieve its potential is for structural reasons in (the) supply chain, in real estate,” Bisen explained, noting that the number of stores hasn’t grown enough to capture the growing demand for affordable luxury products in India. This is because there are still only a handful of premium shopping centres across the country that can provide a good customer experience.

In this, homegrown brands are doing things differently by striking out on their own. Besides selling their products via their websites, Cord, Nappa Dori, and Nicobar, among others, have established concept stores in big cities to showcase their products. Inspired by iconic stores abroad, these shops offer Indian consumers a drastically different experience with in-house cafes, trendy magazines to peruse, and even photo-booths to play around with.

For Bisen, these brands have recognised the huge opportunity in the evolving Indian consumer, though it’s going to take a long time before they reach the scale of foreign players. But for the brands themselves, their very presence, besides their growing success, is a sign that they’re on the right track.

“A brand like mine couldn’t exist 10 years back, for the simple reason that there was not a market for it,” Nappa Dori’s Sinha said. Now, things are different.